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Beating the Twentieth Century Blues

Emilia Marty has seen it all: kings, princes, dukes and the common man on the Street. But it is modern life that does her in—or gives her release. Based on a play by Karel Čapek, Leoš Janáček’s 1926 opera The Makropulos Case (begun in November 1923) charts the final days of Marty’s life. Čapek’s bold conversational play seems like an unlikely source for an opera; even Čapek himself was surprised by the notion. Janáček was nevertheless determined. In the play’s story of a dusty legal dispute, a 337-year-old opera singer, and baroque alchemy, Janáček saw great potential. Indeed, in his hands this pithy drama became a grand and eloquent comedy about mortality. The figure of Emilia Marty also allowed him to vary his approach to the great soprano roles that had dominated his operas to date. Often cold, harsh and dismissive, she sounds an icy note in Janáček’s sound world, while her warnings from history indicate that she is “not for all markets.” The twentieth century’s neuroticism and relentlessness wearies her. Of all Janáček’s operas, The Makropulos Case says most about the time in which it was written.

By the time he came to see Čapek’s play in December 1922, the composer was a well-established figure in Czech culture. Having struggled for years to gain recognition, he finally broke out of his adopted hometown of Brno with a production of his opera Jenůfa (1904) at the National Theatre in Prague in 1916. This grand affair, quite unlike the premiere in a converted dance hall in Brno, put Janáček’s work on the map. The opera was then seen in Vienna in 1918 and slowly but surely his work began to be heard across Central Europe. This newfound success, coupled with the end of the First World War and ensuing Czech independence (after years as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) gave the composer brand new lust for composition. His personal life was also given a new fillip in the form of Kamila Stösslová. Since 1904, Janáček had visited the spa-town of Luhačovice. Like many of the Central European states, Moravia believed in rest and recuperation in one of its many spas. The waters at Luhačovice had purportedly curative qualities and the quiet of a few weeks among the lush forests and hills proved helpful to many. Janáček visited the town every year to escape Brno and the tensions of his domestic life— since the death of their children he and his wife Zdenka had not been getting on. It was there that he met Kamila Stösslová. She was the wife of an antiques dealer from the small Bohemian town of Písek. Despite her lack of literary or musical knowledge, Janáček became infatuated. The obsession was largely one-sided, but her presence in Janáček’s life proved seemingly conducive to a whole decade of boundless creativity.

Shortly after meeting Stösslová, Janáček was already hard at work on his first work inspired by her, a song cycle called The Diary of One Who Disappeared. His opera Káťa Kabanová followed quickly afterwards, telling of a romantic but deeply tragic love affair. even The Cunning Little Vixen—on the surface a charmingly simple tale of life in the forest—has a note of infatuation in the form of the village girl Terynka. Janáček wrote to Stösslová throughout the process of composing these great works, detailing how he thought of her all the time and, sometimes after the event, how she had inspired the works. Perhaps less flattering, however, was any comparison with Emilia Marty. Over the Christmas holidays in 1922 Janáček wrote to her about having seen the play.

They have now been giving Makropulos in Prague. a woman 337-years-old, but at the same time still young and beautiful. Would you like to be like that too? and you know that she was unhappy? We are happy because we know that our life isn’t long. So it’s necessary to make use of every moment, to use it properly. It’s all hurry in our life—and longing. The latter is my lot. That woman—the 337-year-old beauty—didn’t have a heart any more. That’s bad.

Janáček’s deliberately naïve reading of the text reveals much about the way in which he would eventually construct the opera. He, like Marty’s many suitors, gazes on longingly, albeit in the knowledge that he will never possess the object of his affections. as time elapsed, these thoughts coagulated and the composer was soon at work on an operatic adaptation.

Karel Čapek (and his brother Josef) was already very well known in Prague cultural circles before his contact with Janáček. His 1920 play R.U.R. —Rossumovi univerzální roboti [Rossum’s Universal Robots] introduced the idea of the humanoid “robot” to the world, prefiguring George orwell and aldous Huxley. Čapek would go on to be a prominent figure, both domestically and internationally, in Czech literature. His work touches key humanitarian and ethical themes. Later in life, as the threat of fascism loomed from over the border, a political edge began to appear in his work. Karel died of double pneumonia on Christmas Day in 1938, shortly after the Sudetenland had been annexed by Nazi Germany. Josef, who was equally established in inter-War Prague as a painter and writer (he designed the Prague premiere of The Cunning Little Vixen), died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Čapek’s work was a major fixture of Prague modernism. Urgent not preachy, it eschewed religious morality in favor of larger ethical questions on human existence. It is in that scheme that Karel Čapek imagined the 337-year life of Emilia Marty. Janáček saw Čapek’s play three weeks after its opening. At the time he was embroiled with Vixen, but as soon as he finished that opera and had acquired the rights to Čapek’s text, Janáček went to work. Although much of the original structure of the play remained, the work grew into a grander, more emotional piece than the original “conversational comedy.” Elina’s death was Janáček’s most important invention (as the death of the vixen had been at the end of his previous opera).

Caught between her history and the demands of the present, Marty is a beguiling and permanently intriguing character in the operatic landscape. Her Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case or Secret) concerns an endless legal wrangle over a document in which the secret of Emilia’s ageless beauty is revealed. Elina Makropulos, as she was originally called, was the daughter of the court alchemist employed by Emperor Rudolf II. Since her childhood, she has been known by a variety of different names, having vast numbers of lovers along the way. Given her age, she is able to help the lawyers in the story to solve a generation-old legal wrangle, meantime however she is searching for the details of the potion so that she can extend her life again. Such is the pretext of the play to which Janáček acquired the operatic rights. But the composer went further. Čapek was thirty-two when his play received its premiere, while Janáček was more than double that when he embarked on the opera at age sixty-nine. Perhaps feeling that his time was going to run out sooner rather than later, Janáček’s philosophy changed, as he indicated to Stösslová, writing “it’s necessary to make use of every moment, to use it properly. It’s all hurry in our life.” The vacillation between immortality and that “hurry in our life” is the dichotomy with which Marty wrestles throughout the opera.

Janáček cleverly describes Marty’s world of contemporary Prague with bustling density. The overture, played by the full orchestra (but with an additional offstage section), sounds like the rush of the modern metropolis. The endless tinkering of the lawyers’ office, with its dense Czech numbers and infinite case files, is portrayed with tiny motifs. The commotion of Marty’s dressing room after her performance (in the National Theatre of Janáček’s 1916 success) likewise furthers the sense of a thrilling but incessant city. The violent jolt of the capital brought elation to many, though equally it took its toll on others. Marty, who knows Prague of old, has seen the city change and yet that rush, paralleled in the squabbling of her various suitors, has changed her. At first desperate to find the formula so that she may continue her life, something occurs in the opera that changes her decision. It is certainly not the bevy of admirers that we meet during the course of the piece (just a tiny portion of those she has met throughout her 337 years). The sweet but tongue-tied Janek cannot melt her nor can the heroic tenor Albert Gregor, with his huge bouquet, find the chink in her armor. Only Hauk-Šendorf, an old half-witted ex-diplomat, raises a smile, recalling the days when he knew her as Eugenia Montez. But she still does not concede to their advances. as she realizes that Jaroslav Prus, a rather bullish lawyer, holds the key to her life or death, she finally gives in. The prize, as Prus learns, is not worth the taking. Cold and heartless after years and years of love, his night with Marty is a grave disappointment.

Her unwillingness to embrace those around her is indicative of the fact that life has lost its meaning. Ordered by his master to develop an elixir of eternal life, Marty’s father, the alchemist, tried it on his sixteen-year-old daughter. She fell into a coma and he was imprisoned as a fraud, but shortly afterward the girl recovered and escaped. Some years later, she gave the formula to her lover Baron Prus, bearing him a son (which makes her albert Gregor’s grandmother several times over). Since the formula works for only 300 years, she needed to recover it in order to survive. But it is the prospective lovers—Janek and Krista—who have taught her that life no longer has any meaning. Human contact leaves her and her suitors cold and, unable to glean any new experience from the world, she is finally ready to die. Life, she imparts, should not last too long. As Marty accepts mortality, Krista, one of the lawyers’ daughters, burns the formula, severing all links with the past. Throughout this final passage of the opera, Janáček indicates some greater goal. After the tintinnabulation of the score and the incessant murmurings of the suitors, he opens up the sound world. The ending has grandness, an openness that we have not heard before in the piece. It recalls the Forester’s epiphanic words at the end of The Cunning Little Vixen: “People will pass in holy silence bowing their heads, and all the joy of Heaven will unfold, covering them in glory!”

The yearning theme that sounds during these final moments shows us a new direction away from the blur of modern life. although Marty is becoming increasingly cold (both emotionally and physically), her music is warm. Having kept the nascent humanity of his style at bay throughout the first two acts, detailing the petty, small, and selfish nature of Marty and her suitors, the numinous conclusion to The Makropulos Case tells a clear and wonderful moral. It is a message that Janáček indicated before he had even begun work on the piece. “We are happy because we know that our life isn’t long.” Čapek, who never imagined that his play could have been an opera, was amazed. His sister later recalled the effect the work had on him:

Karel came to the Brno premiere of the opera. and how charmed and pleased he was! The piece, which he had not thought about for ages, turned out nobly, even magnificently, in Janáček’s nice arrangement and splendid music, and the performance was outstanding. Karel simply glowed, drinking mutual toasts with the Maestro. “He did it a hundred times better than I could ever have even imagined!,” he proclaimed. But that tireless one [Janáček] was now looking elsewhere, far ahead.

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